[10 September 2012]
PopMatters Features Editor
A cheery octogenarian couple (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) return home from a night at the symphony. They chat, they laugh, they bicker. It’s adorable. And then, despite making what should have been the mood-shattering discovery that someone has tried (and failed) to break in while they were out, the husband gently tells his wife not to let it “spoil your good mood”. These are not the kind of people who let obstacles prevent them from moving forward.
And then, the following morning, over breakfast, she suffers a stroke. Upon a grim diagnosis, she is released from hospital and the couple retreats to their new life together. As she slowly fades away, as her husband tries with a pathetic stoicism to tend to her basic bodily needs amid mounting catastrophe, Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Caché) keeps his camera close by. Shot almost entirely in one mid-sized Paris apartment, and featuring only a handful of supporting players in tiny roles, this is an extraordinarily intimate film; indeed, it is almost claustrophobic. When their visiting daughter (Isabelle Huppert) opens a window, we are as glad for the air as she is. And this intimacy is only embellished through the delicate, immaculate sound design—one is made acutely aware of such mundane noises as footsteps, breathing, ruffling sheets, sighs, and all of that water running down the drain. (Water is the elixir of life, as they say.)
Though there are shades of Bergman (Cries and Whispers is the obvious touchstone here, but also Wild Strawberries) in this winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, Haneke is once again demonstrating his ingenuity, his unusual cinematic voice. An unbearably sad, even anguished story, Amour asks its viewers to go somewhere truly horrific, to spend a long time there, and to expect no reward for their trouble; it’s difficult to imagine another living filmmaker pulling this off. Many sections are truly difficult to watch—there is a shower scene that will haunt me for many years to come—and this film refuses, steadfastly, to descend into anything resembling sentimentality. We find no comforting narrative turn, no swelling music to guide our emotions, nothing but the bleak reality that is this unbearable scenario: his lifelong love may be already lost to him, yet the living goes on.
This is a film that demanded, and got, two note-perfect performances in the main roles. Trintignant in particular invests his character with such a complex sadness alongside such a tough and unfailing endurance, he comes across as both our hero and our damsel in distress in this nightmare scenario. Though Haneke’s penchant for elliptical storytelling—he is not one for “endings”—rears its head unnecessarily in the final act, there is more than enough that works here to outweigh this unfortunate tic. Unforgettable.
Burn It Up Djassa
Ivory Coast/France—Lonesome Solo
Tony is a minor criminal in the bleak Abidjan neighbourhood of Wassakara. Struggling to make ends meet (and for the respect of his elder brother Mike, a police officer) he spends his nights selling cigarettes and gambling with local toughs in the dusty ghetto. In an effort to impress them, perhaps, Tony adopts a street name “Dagabao”, and tries to pass himself as a big shot. It never quite works, until he gets into an altercation with another man who has insulted his sister, a prostitute. Now Mike is on the case, out to track down this “Dagabao”, and Tony is on the lam: a showdown is inevitable.
Though on the surface it appears to be a straightforward (even simplistic) study of a small time hood in a filthy corner of the Ivory Coast, there is more to Burn It Up Djassa than its austere narrative implies. The crucial element is the ingenious device of having each act pre-narrated by another ghetto kid, whose descriptions of the events are always blown miles out of proportion, and which serve to canonize “Dagabao” as a local gangster hero. How do these street kids become famous hard-as-nails murderous badasses whose names ring out long after they’re gone? Mythology, lies, and exaggeration; a myth-symbol complex which provides these hopeless street kids with gallant, counter-establishment figures, around whose invented grandiosity they can rally.
The desperate respect our narrator has for “Dagabao” pushes him to embellish, even outright invent, circumstances and outcomes. We hear from him what’s about to happen, and it sounds wild, violent, dramatic. But what we then see unfold is often mundane, sloppy, even pathetic. Though a flawed film in some key technical areas - it is shot in suffocating close up, for instance, there are a few brutal continuity errors, and the subtitling is best described as random, allowing many key lines to pass untranslated for English speakers - this is a surprisingly affecting film about our formative myths, and why we tell and retell these stories.
An eerie, if obtuse study of animals and man’s relationship to them, Canadian visionary Denis Cote’s film documents about six months in the life of a Quebec safari park. Consisting of a series of static framed shots of various animals in cages and the people who tend, work with, and admire them, the film offers no clear message. Certainly if one comes to the film uncomfortable with the idea of non-native animals held in cages through a Canadian winter, one will find this to be distinctly maddening viewing. But, should you be open to the idea of a northern safari park, then what you get here is a mostly baffling collection of shots of animals doing their animaly stuff. The film never pushes one side or another, which is to say that it “documents” in the most verite sense of the word, relying on shot choice and framing (rather than didacticism or narrative line) to relate its information. In what is a powerful, unforgettable image, Cote offers a long, wide shot of a string of cars snaking away from the Safari while a group of zebras slowly meanders around and between them, pushing against the traffic. It’s arresting, but entirely up to you to read. Is what you are seeing cruelty? Or simply the basic reality of keeping animals for public viewing and entertainment?
Though the film strays (I think unhelpfully, even perhaps detrimentally) into a section where we watch a taxidermist clean and then stuff a bird, there is something of a unified whole here. Opening with a shot of a group of art students working on drawing a stuffed and mounted fawn, and ending with the sound of them still scribbling away over the end credits, Cote closes a circle around his subject: humans capture, admire, but can never really know animals.
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story
For anyone who grew up with Tomi Ungerer’s grotesque, bizarre, sublime children’s books in the late 1950s and early 1960s (“Crictor” & “The Three Robbers” among them), this film will be something of an eye opener. Did you ever wonder why those books disappeared off of the shelves of North American libraries in the early 1970s? Or how it was that Ungerer, among the most successful children’s book authors in the United States by 1965, slipped off of the radar, his books vanishing along with him? As a child of the late 1970s, I can attest to this absence—I never saw, nor did I ever hear about, any of his work. And yet, not ten years earlier, Ungerer had been the toast of the children’s book industry. Imagine: hailed by many of his contemporaries as a genius and vanguard figure—Maurice Sendak claims that “he influenced everybody”—and then: gone. What happened?
This documentary, exhaustively detailed and playfully presented, not only answers that question, but offers a wealth of food for thought about the relationship between art, the state, and individuality (not to mention sexuality, power, and creativity). Ungerer, raised under the Nazis in the decidedly complicated Franco-German milieu of Alsace, knew first-hand about the way kids respond to fear, to hatred, and he came to believe strongly in the need for children to confront, even embrace, these emotions. His children’s books were so surprising (and so affecting) because they never shied away from darkness. But, this is what also made his late-1960s antiwar and political posters so incendiary, too. And, it turns out, it was also what made his volumes of kink-themed erotica so deliciously transgressive. (See where this is going?) Thing was, few had figured out that it was the same guy who was doing these three things—erotica, antiwar posters, children’s books—simultaneously. And when they did figure it out: BOOM. Career over, books removed from libraries, name cut from the rolls of acceptable children’s book authors. It’s a hell of a story, and though the film drags in the final act (things got a lot less interesting while he was in his exile), it’s likely to be a crowd pleaser at this fest.